Great Britain

One Man and His Shoes review – the heartbreaking rise and fall of Air Jordans

This is a documentary that only seems to wake up to its own tragic significance once it is nearly all over. Most of the time it is a celebratory account of how in the 80s and 90s a uniquely talented African American athlete became a legend, finding staggering wealth and success in America’s white-controlled worlds of sports, pop culture and commerce. But then, in its final act, the film appears to suggest that it might have got the tone wrong and this could actually be a story of something scandalous in which the athlete and his corporate sponsors are themselves complicit.

In the mid-80s, Michael Jordan broke through as a breathtakingly good basketball player with superstar power. We see the glorious footage of his amazing prowess as Jordan almost seems to float through the air and even supernaturally pause in mid-flight before each shot. Nike made Jordan the branded figurehead of a new line of sneakers, the Air Jordans, which were initially banned by the NBA because of their colour scheme – and naturally only created an outlaw glamour. Witty, quirky TV ads by Spike Lee took Air Jordan-mania to new levels of delirium. From modest beginnings, Jordan became very rich indeed.

So far, so aspirational. But then, kids started killing each other for their Air Jordans, and the $140 price tag doesn’t exactly explain it. The point is – and it’s a point that the film could have made sooner – these shoes were being aggressively marketed to the kids who could least afford them. The brand was monetising a street culture created by the impoverished customer base. Nike was controlling the supply of Air Jordans as carefully as De Beers controlled the supply of diamonds, artificially assigning extreme value and desirability to the shoes. Automobiles can at least be locked and made traceable with registration plates, and TVs and VCRs can be hidden away in apartments. But the whole point of Air Jordans was that they were worn out on the street with no protection whatever.

Only over the final credits do we learn that no one at Nike or Team Jordan agreed to take part in the film. This is a heartbreaking story, but the film leaves it very late to tell it.

• One Man and His Shoes is on digital platforms from 23 October.

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